Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s “Planned Obsolescence”: Like Retinol for the Scholarly Monograph | From Site Contributor Lauren Pfeil

Kathleen Fitzpatrick opens Planned Obsolescence with “The text you are now reading, whether on a screen in draft form or in its final, printed version, began its gestation some years ago in a series of explorations into the notion of obsolescence.”1 

I am now writing a blog post about a book about obsolescence with the knowledge that the very words I am typing are going to become obsolete. So, uh, with that happy thought that in mind…

Fitzpatrick has explored obsolescence as a concept before publishing Planned Obsolescence—namely, in her previous title, “The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television,” which was published in 2006. Her struggles in publishing that book were ironic; at the heart of its argument was the defense of books’ relevance in today’s culture, and yet, she was rejected by presses that she thought would agree with that thesis. 

And nevertheless, she persisted—in large part because getting published is still an important standard by which academics are judged. Though our culture broadly has shifted away from the book in favor of other media, the scholarly monograph is still key for advancement at the vast majority of American colleges and universities. Therefore, the scholarly monograph, she argues, is not dead: it is undead.2

Cue the theme music from The X-Files.

“Undead” here doesn’t necessarily mean that once-popular titles that have fallen off of syllabi have suddenly been reborn from their literary ashes. Rather, Fitzpatrick states that the scholarly monograph is no longer viable as a form, yet it is still necessary. There hasn’t been a new form or a major change to the form which could replace the scholarly monograph as-is, so although we are aware that it is flawed, we continue with the scholarly monograph as it is the best option that we have. Those of you who are rom-com watchers will recognize this as “settling.”

Through five chapters—”Peer Review”, “Authorship”, “Texts”, “Preservation”, and “The University”—Fitzpatrick strips the world of academic publishing down to the studs. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of academic publishing, exploring why it is the way it is and how it got to be that way before mapping out potential new roads to explore in the name of improvement. Fitzpatrick stakes claim after claim as she tackles each new subject, and demonstrates the importance of her assessments and subsequent recommendations with fervor. There’s something distinctly Lorax-ian about her prose; even sections that center on technical knowledge are passionately written and defended.

While much of Planned Obsolescence relies on speculation or predictions, its myriad hypotheses alone are worth considering even without testing and results. Fitzpatrick is doing heavy lifting here by working to push a field forward, and for current and former scholars and academics alike, this book is like a fire alarm. Even though she acknowledges that as every second goes by, her statements lose relevance, it is the fact that she is making them and that we are reading them that makes them more crucial than ever. Putting out a fire from inside the house is a big ask, and yet, Kathleen Fitzpatrick has asked it of us. It’s going to take a whole lot of people willing to fight this fire to keep the scholarly monograph from going completely up in flames.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Because it’s such a hot topic both in general and for this class specifically: How do you think Fitzpatrick would feel about NFTs, as they relate to intellectual property and authorship? 
  2. What’s something that you once loved that is now obsolete? For what reason has it become obsolete, and do you think that there is a potential route for it to be revived?
  3. In Chapter 3, Fitzpatrick writes that “[g]ames may seem a frivolous example of the contemporary academy’s drive to cater to the younger generation’s relatively non-intellectual interests, but it is in fact hoped that patrons who use the library in such a fashion will not only be more likely to use it in traditional ways…but also more empowered to collaborate with one another, breaking the library’s stereotypical hush.” As public historians, creating a product that can be relevant to broad audience—across generations, for example—can be a difficult task. Does obsolescence help or hurt this effort? How can it be utilized strategically?
  4. As historians, we often handle topics and subjects that are considered obsolete. Where do you draw the line between obsolescence being a good thing and being a bad thing?
  5. Is there something about student life that you already consider “undead”? What could possible reanimations or replacements be?
  6. As a student—someone who has experienced university life and academic constraints, even if you haven’t pursued publishing—what is something that you would like to see change about the culture of academia?

Notes:

  1. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence (New York: NYU Press, 2011), 1.
  2. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence (New York: NYU Press, 2011), 4.

Lauren Pfeil is a graduate student at American University. A native of Des Moines, Iowa and a proud alumna of Butler University, she hopes to push the field of public history towards a more inclusive & accessible landscape.

Reach Lauren on Twitter: @lauren_pfeil
Reach Lauren via email: laurenspfeil@gmail.com

Folklore and the Fear Factor: The Evolution of Legends in the Era of Reddit

In the era of technology, modern medicine, and science, the concept that people still believe in, share, and adhere to folklore might sound absurd. Take, for instance, the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The story of a colorfully dressed rat catcher, hired by the town of Hamelin, who plays his flute, entrancing the pests and leading them out of the town. When the town refused to pay for his services, however, the Piper used his flute to lure a new set of victims: the town’s children. Lured by his tune, the children left town and vanished never to be seen again. By today’s standards, this story sounds more than a little odd, the type of tale that would be unlikely to pass the test of time as it once did. However, if you dig more deeply into that story, a truth unfolds.

Pied Piper of Hamelin rendition, copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hamelin.

While the rats were a later addition to the story, one common truth remained: a stranger came to town, and left with the children. In 1227, approximately 50 years prior to the story in Hamelin, the Holy Roman Empire and Denmark fought in a battle that pushed back Danish borders. Colorfully dressed Roman salesmen, often called “locators,” travelled the land to find skilled men and women to move north to protect the Empire’s new borders. For obvious reasons, this was a hard sell. For towns like Hamelin, losing skilled laborers could put the town at risk. As a result, it was common practice to sell or give away children to this cause when locators came into town. For Hamelin, the tracing of surnames to new towns proves the less savory version of this folktale: a town made the collective decision to sell their children to locators to ship off to new towns. From there a collective story was constructed as a way to cope with their actions for years to come, and the Pied Piper was born.

Much like those that came before us, humans still tell stories to make sense of the world. Most especially, we continue to be drawn in by stories of tragedy, of what hides in the dark, or what steals our children. Our modern legends can be traced in figures such as the Slender Man. Slender Man, an unnaturally thin and tall humanoid creature, is said to stalk, abduct, and traumatize it’s victims, usually children or young adults. His story began on the Something Awful forum, with a couple of doctored photos, but those on the forum (and on other forums, such as Reddit and 4chan) began adding narrative and visual art, building a mythos of Slender Man.

The legend increased in popularity, showing up first in video games, blending into traditional popular culture, and then movies. Unfortunately, much of this limelight was a result of a 2014 tragedy, when two 12 year old girls lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her as an “offering” to Slender Man. Their actions, as awful as it may seem, continue to show the pervasive power of folklore in the modern era.

Film poster for Slender Man Movie, released 2018

While the original Slender Man story proliferated on a pre-Reddit site, there is little doubt that Reddit has become a breeding ground for modern day folkore. Subreddits such as r/creepypasta, r/nosleep, r/letsnotmeet, and more have acted as a space for entire communities built around the purpose of creating, sharing, and commenting on scary stories.

For now, my primary question remains: when we compare these stories against more traditional folklore, what role does a medium such as Reddit or TikTok play in the creation and proliferation of folklore? And in the era of science and technology, are we somehow more beholden to these stories than ever before?

In my project, I am hoping to explore some of the most popular subreddits and examples of modern folklore, examining how the medium of social media plays a part in the creation and proliferation of folklore. Without our knowledge, have these stories become even more important to our societies than the folktales we believe we have left behind?

For now, I will look at examples such as Slender Man (and other creepypasta figures) and trends such as Randonautica to track how they show up in social media (most likely using tools such as Voyant, Google n-gram, and topic modeling programs where possible). From there, I will attempt to assess the role these platforms play in the potency of the stories told, as well as assessing the lasting power of the legends in the context of “virality” and the fleeting nature of trends online.

Citations:

Blank, Trevor J., and Lynne S. McNeill. “Introduction: Fear Has No Face: Creepypasta as Digital Legendry.” In Slender Man Is Coming: Creepypasta and Contemporary Legends on the Internet, edited by Blank Trevor J. and McNeill Lynne S., 3-24. Logan: University Press of Colorado, 2018. Accessed February 24, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv5jxq0m.4.

Manhke, Aaron hosts, “A Stranger Among Us,” Lore (podcast). December 28, 2015. Accessed February 24, 2021. https://www.lorepodcast.com/episodes/24

photos:

https://www.cinematerial.com/movies/slender-man-i5690360/p/fwdpcmpf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pied_Piper_of_Hamelin

My Life as a Warning to Others

Hello, everyone. My name is Andy Cleavenger, and I am beginning my fourth year of this two year program.

My life up to this point has been spent as a photographer and multimedia specialist at a government contractor. I work in their Communications department. My interest in this class stems from my role as the sole caretaker of our department’s image collection. For over 17 years I have been the only one capable of performing image searches, and the only one concerned with the preservation of those images. I’m in the Digital Curation track to learn how to effectively turn my collection into a self-service resource available to all employees. And I’m in this class specifically to make sure I’m doing everything possible to ensure the long-term preservation of our image collection.

I must admit that the first axiom listed in Owens – “A repository is not a piece of software” – just about made me stand up from my chair and shout “see, I told you!” at my former boss. We have always treated the image collection as a problem that can be solved with a magic-bullet purchase of DAM software.

“We bought it… we’re done!”

This is of course, extremely common. Like most offices, they forget about the systems that will come after the present one, or the unceasing march of technological progress that dictates both the increasing complexity of the images as well as the expanding diversification of their use. This was nicely summed up in Owens’ last axiom: “Doing digital preservation requires thinking like a futurist.”  I fear that they may regret some of the decisions they’ve made such as stripping all filenames from their videos, throwing everything into a single directory, and then depending on an external proprietary catalog file to save all related metadata.

We are now married to that system… and it’s failing us.

The remaining articles on either side of the digital dark age debate made some equally compelling points. Ultimately, I felt that Lyons and Tansey both came closest to hitting the mark on what form a digital dark age would take, as well as the forces that would drive it. Lyons frames the problem as one of cultural blindness. That is to say that institutions that exist within and serve a particular society tend to have difficulty in recognizing the value in – or even being aware of – the records of other communities. As such, the digital dark age will manifest itself in the silence of these socio-politically disadvantaged communities within the archival record.

This is not an unfamiliar argument, but I tend to think the motivations for its reality are less a conspiratorial omission than they are due to a sad pragmatism driven by extremely finite resources. This point was reflected well in Tansey. She makes the point that the long trend of cuts to budgets and staff force institutions to set priorities that obviously leave gaps in the archival record. In other words, even if an institution has an awareness of fringe communities, and possibly even has a sympathetic collections policy for including those records, the pragmatism of limited resources may still dictate their omission as the institution focuses on its highest priorities.

I have certainly seen this in my position in the Communications department. I’m curious if others in class have seen examples like this in their own workplaces?

Some Thoughts on Visualization in the Humanities or the worst blog post title ever (sorry)

This week’s readings expressed a wide and deeply conflicted range of attitudes regarding the assorted uses of computers, computer modeling and the data-ization of the humanities. The authors were all for it, but some of the arguments against the idea they discussed were interesting – and valid. This validity is incredibly important; having been discussing diversity and cultural inclusion on LBSC 631 this week, I found myself hyper-aware of the attitudes some of the authors were displaying to their techno-tentative brethren. However, this is a blog and I’m am going to make some grand and sweeping statements – which I will then try to back up… hopefully using memes.

Grand Statement #1: Let’s not be that guy.

You know the guy I mean.

Grand Statement #2: “Computers allow you to go further.”

If there is to be a rallying cry for the Digital Humanities, this might well be it. Yesterday, I was whining to a mechanical engineer of my acquaintance about Underwood’s observations of the reluctance in the Academy to embrace digital technologies, how they fear a total seismic shift* in their world.

I would like to assuage those fears. According to my mechanical engineer, “Computers allow you to go further. They don’t take away the work.” I was scrambling for a pen here so the next bit is a paraphrase: computers make more work and they make what you’ve got more accessible.

Take the work done with MALLET, Blevins describes how computer modeling validates itself. The Ballard diary, chosen in part one assumes for its completeness, shows how well the computer can model. Blevins even relates how surprised he was that it initially worked so well. But it worked. The tool did the thing it was designed to do. That’s great! And now there’s all this data to play with. If you wanted to only focus on the number of babies born when the crocuses were in bloom, then it’s a simple matter of correlating your data. If you want to take up the argument discussed in Graphs, Maps, and Trees, that there is no such thing as a “gothic novel” and dissolve that grouping from his chart of genres to see what the effects are, you can do so. Vistas abound, new peaks arise to be surmounted.

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The problem, I think, is that Humanists see things like “correlating data” and “data manipulation” and they freak out because these are STEM things. That they are not scientists, but humanists. Theirs is a world of logic and rhetoric. Well, yes, fine, but notice how scientists get all the grants?

Science vs. Humanities… ›› See... and my family thought I was crazy for being a Humanities major.

We don’t need to spend years waiting on graduate students to count everything by hand. We can load that puppy, or important literary work, into a computer and run analysis, any analysis, all analyses. And then tomorrow, we can do it again, go further and deeper. Instead of relying on grad students, you can partner with other academics on the other side of the world as easily as in the next building over a la Graham, Milligan, and Weingart. Where privacy and exclusivity are a concern, there is no need to make work public as they did, but this opens a work up to more input, catching mistakes earlier, and examining multiple points of view since no one publishes the book to make money anyway. You publish the book to get tenure.

Grand Statement #3: This is not the Singularity.

Technology is moving at a brisk clip, but we’re not in any danger of be replaced by robots today or tomorrow or the next day. For whatever reason, and I’m going to guess it has a lot to do with not being good with computers 10+ years ago, some humanists aren’t on board with putting the digital into their work. This is a massive disappointment for the rest of us because the kind of work that they’re doing, work like breaking down the linguistic anachronisms in Downton Abbey (a point of much personal vindication for me) and examining the Ballard diary, is really interesting. And doing it with graphs means that people who don’t have PhDs can understand it too. Perhaps therein lies the fear; that if outsiders can see – and understand – what we’re doing, we’ll all revert to the seventh grade and get made fun of by the popular kids for liking to evaluate complexly and dig a little deeper. So how do we embrace our intelligence, how do we share the fruits of our enthusiasm in the best possible way? I would argue that charts and graphs – visualizations of complex data – are the way forward.

 

 

 

*To be fair, the idea of a seismic shift as representative of a complete overhaul of any working system was no doubt active before Mr. M. Watkins published his article “How Managers become Leaders,” but it is from him that I got the idea so I have linked to it in Google Scholar: Michael D. Watkins, “How Managers Become Leaders,” Harvard Business Review 90 (June 2012), 65-72.